In January 1781, American forces under Daniel Morgan dealt a crushing defeat to Tarleton at Cowpens, South Carolina. Two months later, at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, General Nathanael Greene, while conducting a campaign of strategic retreats, inflicted heavy losses on Lord Charles Cornwallis, the British commander in the South. Cornwallis moved into Virginia and encamped at Yorktown, located on a peninsula that juts into Chesapeake Bay. Brilliantly recognizing the opportunity to surround Cornwallis, Washington rushed his forces, augmented by French troops under the Marquis de Lafayette, to block a British escape by land.

A 1781 French engraving showing the surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, ending the War of Independence. The French fleet sits just offshore.

The newly independent United States occupied only a small part of the North American continent in 1783.

Meanwhile, a French fleet controlled the mouth of the Chesapeake, preventing supplies and reinforcements from reaching Cornwallis’s army.

Imperial rivalries had helped to create the American colonies. Now, the rivalry of European empires helped to secure American independence. Taking land and sea forces together, more Frenchmen than Americans participated in the decisive Yorktown campaign. On October 19, 1781,

A satirical cartoon depicts America, represented by an Indian holding a flag and liberty cap, celebrating her independence, while her allies—the King of France, a Dutchman, and a Spaniard— complain that they have not been reimbursed for their support. On the left, King George III recognizes American independence, while Ireland (above) demands its own freedom.

Cornwallis surrendered his army of 8,000 men. When the news reached London, public support for the war evaporated and peace negotiations soon began. Given its immense military prowess, Britain abandoned the struggle rather quickly. Many in Britain felt the West Indies were more valuable economically than the mainland colonies. In any event, British merchants expected to continue to dominate trade with the United States, and did so for many years.

Two years later, in September 1783, American and British negotiators concluded the Treaty of Paris. The American delegation—John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay—achieved one of the greatest diplomatic triumphs in the country’s history. They not only won recognition of American independence but also gained control of the entire region between Canada and Florida east of the Mississippi River, and the right of Americans to fish in Atlantic waters off of Canada (a matter of considerable importance to New Englanders). At British insistence, the Americans agreed that colonists who had remained loyal to the mother country would not suffer persecution and that Loyalists’ property that had been seized by local and state governments would be restored.

Until independence, the thirteen colonies had formed part of Britain’s American empire, along with Canada and the West Indies. But Canada rebuffed repeated calls to join the War of Independence, and leaders of the West Indies, fearful of slave uprisings, also remained loyal to the crown. With the Treaty of Paris, the United States of America became the Western Hemisphere’s first independent nation. Its boundaries reflected not so much the long-standing unity of a geographical region, but the circumstances of its birth.


1. Explain what “homespun virtue” meant and how it set the colonists apart from the British.

2. Pat rick Henry proclaimed that he was not a Virginian, but rather an American. What unified the colonists and what divided them at the time of the Revolution?

3. Discuss the ramifications of using slaves in the British and Continental Armies. Why did the British authorize the use of slaves? Why did the Americans? How did the slaves benefit?

4. Why did the colonists reach the conclusion that membership in the empire threatened their freedoms, rаther than guaranteed them?

5. Describe how Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence reflected the ideas put forth by philosophers such as |ohn Locke that liberty was a natural right. Why did they have such an appeal to colonists of all social classes?

6. How would you justify the British view that the colonists owed loyalty to the existing government and gratitude for past actions?

7. Summarize the difference of opinion between British officials and colonial leaders over the issues of taxation and representation.

8. Trace the growth of colonial cooperation against the British government and the development of an “American” identity.


1. The grand ideas of liberty and freedom are contagious and often spread rapidly. Why were many colonial elites, who held one definition of liberty, alarmed by the actions and claims of average citizens in the decade before independence?

2. Almost every colonist—even those like Thomas Hutchinson who later became loyalists—opposed the Stamp Act. Identify the many ways colonists identified the Stamp Act as a threat to their freedoms.

3. Explain how each of the following could be viewed as a threat to freedom by different groups of colonists: the growing debt of Virginia planters, a lack of courts in the Carolina backcountry, imports of British manufactured goods, and imports of low-priced tea.

4. Why did some Americans view freedom as dependent upon their remaining loyal to the British government and remaining part of the empire?

5. Many historians say that the Declaration of Independence is the most important document in U.S. history. How did it permanently change the meaning of American freedom? What concepts make it so appealing to people of all social classes, across time and the globe?

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